Friday, November 6, 2015

The easiest way to describe my childhood is to list everything it lacked, which was basically everything. You know how if you had disgusting sex with some dude who smelled of Paco Rabanne you'd hate that scent for the rest of your life? If that was your only odd neurosis, well, it would be manageable: there just aren't that many guys who wear Paco Rabanne. But if you had gross sex with a guy who wore Levis, another who loved the outdoors and a third who loved rock music, then here's a hard fact you need to face: you're going to have to deal with it or go live in a box in the yard.

My mother had a different, perfectly rational explanation behind everything I never had. I didn't have fish until I was sixteen years old because she gave me fish when I was a toddler and I spit it out. Onto my high chair. "That showed me!" Mom crowed proudly for the next fifteen years. "You sure didn't like fish!"

That struck me as a weird little pick-and-choose decision. She continued to serve us Rancho Chucko -- a family invention of french bread topped with ground beef, canned mushrooms and Velveeta -- every Sunday without weighing my disgust.


I could have vomited it all over our shag carpeting and it wouldn't have made any difference. "You must have a touch of the stomach flu," Mom would have said. "I'll make a double batch next week."

There's a simple explanation for this conundrum: my sister Barbara Ann loved the shit. That was all that mattered. She was the oldest, and somehow before Sue and I were born she'd managed to wrangle control of our family.

I looked to Sue for backup, futilely believing that two votes against one might provoke some kind of change. "The bread is crunchy," she said, blithely ignoring the greasy meat, neon cheese and mushroom juice. "I like crunchy bread."

I have to preface the next story with a disclaimer: I'm not particularly thrilled that my mother was tied to a chair. I'm no big fan of kids, though, so it's not awfully difficult to justify it to me, whether or not violin practice is involved. Yes, it was simply abominable that her parents forced her to do something that promoted dexterity and creativity. Reprehensible! Child abuse! Somebody should have intervened so that poor girl could have watched game shows for thirty hours a week like the rest of us.

Unfortunately, the side effect was that my mother just couldn't stand to hear violins being played. While we probably wouldn't have gone to Italian restaurants otherwise, we might have listened to classical music. Which was now off the table, because Rachmaninoff didn't spend huge amounts of time on his Marimba Symphony.

I was flipping the TV channel one night when I stumbled on the opera Samson et Delila on PBS. I was instantly transfixed. I'd never seen or heard anything like it, and it was like a whole new beautiful world opened up in front of my eyes. Right around the time Delila started to dance, though, B.A. appeared and spun the channel to Family Feud.

"I was watching that," I protested.

"Forget it," B.A. countered. "Nobody wants to watch fat people sing."

I looked to Sue for support. "I'm going to go read a book," she said.

We had a lot of salad when I was a child. "Cool," you say, picturing kale and dried cranberries and balsamic vinaigrette, without realizing that until just a few short years ago "salad" meant a quarter of a head of lettuce plopped onto a plate. I wasn't a fan until Mom suddenly, inexplicably made friends with another single mother and we went to her house for dinner. We stared awestruck at the lazy Susan in the center of the table festooned with dozens of multicolored bottles of various shapes and sizes.

"What is that?" Sue whispered.

We watched as one of the other kids opened a bottle and poured some of the contents on his lettuce wedge. "It's some kind of salad lubricant," I guessed.

The other kids noticed our reluctance to partake, and soon a curious look had spread across the family. "You've had salad dressing before, right?" one of the kids asked.

"We have it all the time," B.A. lied. She twisted off the cap of one bottle and watched in amazement as a half-cup of Thousand Island glopped onto her lettuce wedge. She tried a bite and then, still trying to feign disinterest, shoveled it into her mouth at blinding speed.

The other kids looked to me for confirmation. "We eat plain lettuce with nothing on it," I said. "I have never seen this before in my life."

And then all eyes turned to Sue. "We've eaten something very similar," she said.

That's it, I think. I'm alone. Sue smiles innocently; it's another compromise. She's good at it, and she's proud of it. She's the middle child, and that's her job. I don't say much throughout the rest of the meal, and quiz her for details later. She didn't want to make trouble. She didn't want to embarrass Mom.

And really, is it all that different from mayonnaise?

Rancho Chucko

     1 pound ground beef
     1 can sliced mushrooms
     1 package Velveeta processed cheese
     1 loaf french bread, sliced horizontally

Brown the ground beef in a frying pan. Spoon onto the bread along with the mushrooms and the cheese. Broil until bubbly and somebody screams, "OH HOLY GOD, NOT THIS CRAP AGAIN!!!"

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